1. Do you like horror movies? If yes, proceed to #2. If no, proceed to Becoming, a documentary about Michelle Obama that will fill your spirit with hope and strength.
2. Do you like b-horror movies? Perhaps not super low budget, technically, but definitely campy, outrageous, and grotesque. Not going to be mistaken for Ari Aster or Jordan Peele. If yes, proceed to #3. If no, proceed to The Invisible Man, a horror that’s both smart and well-acted.
3. Are you okay with body horror (defined as: intentionally showcasing graphic or psychologically disturbing violations of the human body)? If yes, proceed to #4. If no, proceed to Knives And Skin, a film that mixes fear, desire, and deadpan black comedy.
4. Are you cool with unexplained supernatural or paranormal events? If yes, proceed to #5. If no, proceed to Dead Shack, an ode to 80s slashers and practical effects, it’s a fun, severed-tongue-in-cheek horror that’s been underappreciated.
5. Do you think teenage girls who complain about their rural address and long for fast food but ride barefoot on a horse dressed like Robin Wright in Princess Bride are a) confusing, probably badly drawn characters, or b) exciting and full of intrigue? If a), proceed to Gwen, a spooky and haunting story about a no-nonsense teenager. If b), proceed to #6 and I promise, no follow-up questions even though I have many.
6. Are you comfortable with toxic parent-child relationships? If yes, please proceed calmly to #7 without making eye contact with other readers. If not, feel free to enjoy Game of Death instead – a horror so good it’ll make your head explode!
7. On a scale of 1-10, what is your tolerance for Nicolas Cage gone completely gonzo? If you answered anywhere from 1-8, please check out Prevenge, a film that is daringly transgressive. If you’re sure you can handle a fully bonkers Cage, please see #8, but be prepared to put this in writing.
8. Repeat after me: I, ______________________ (please say your name out loud for the witnesses), do swear not to hold Jay personally responsible, or AssholesWatchingMovies.com generally responsible, if Nicolas Cage adopts and then loses and then finds and then loses and then picks up and then discards an accent that makes no sense, or if he goes completely apeshit on some innocent produce. If you have solemnly taken this oath, you may proceed to #9. If you can’t do it, and I don’t blame you one bit, check out The Orphanage if you got this far and you want a good scare without Nic Cage Nic Caging all over the place.
9. Do you love alpacas? Do you mildly like alpacas? Do you feel fairly neutral about alpacas but wish them no harm? The Cleanse, a horror about loneliness and poop, may be a better choice for you. But if you’re like: “Fuck alpacas!” then by all means, proceed to #10.
10. Wow, okay, you’re still here. Maybe you deserve this movie. I’m partially joking here. This movie is actually well-received by people and critics who are receptive to this kind of thing: a highly stylized, super weird, fairly pulpy, crazy hokey, occasionally downright goofy horror movie that is totally unique, and perhaps fated for cult status. If you’re dealing with any lingering doubts at all, there’s always Zombeavers. Yes, it’s about zombie beavers, but I assure you they’re considerably less ridiculous than Nicolas Cage in Color Out Of Space. But if this is your thing, by all means, have at it. For your efforts, I bestow upon you the following honour.
Madison Taylor (Nicky Whelan) is having a heck of a day. First she has the misfortune of walking in on a murder in progress, and then she takes a bullet to the leg in the crossfire. She wakes up in the hospital with dependable Lt. Steve Wakes (Bruce Willis) assigned to her protection; she is a key witness to the crime. But Wakes leaves almost immediately, and sure he’s doing his job “solving the murder” but he’s kind of “a really shitty protector” since he LEAVES HER ALL ALONE. So of course the murderers seize their opportunity, and now poor Madison is limping away through the halls of a locked down hospital, desperately trying to evade some very bad guys who, ironically, would very much like to shoot her dead. I’m calling it ironic because the reason they want her dead is because the bullet in her leg is evidence of their crime, so they want to plug her with a few new ones, but scoop that first bad boy out, because some dirty cop went and pulled his service revolver during a crime and that shit is traceable.
Three things to know:
The hospital is on “lockdown” which basically just means that the exits have been sealed off. It is still a functioning hospital, at least upstairs, where Madison’s little sister is a patient (panic attack? asthma attack? something like that). Madison and her stalkers are mostly in the basement, which has an abandoned, horror movie feel.
Lt. Steve Wakes has abandoned his post, and the basement obviously gets very poor cell service. But can he even be trusted? The criminals are cops and trusting one of them, especially a flake, is a lot to ask of a woman who’s got police force ammunition buried in her flesh.
Steve Guttenberg plays a doctor. That’s actually not at all important, it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part. You’d call it a cameo if he was at all famous anymore, but in his case it’s probably better called a “bit part.” But still: Steve Guttenberg! If you’re at all prone to pity spirals or second hand shame, do NOT read his IMDB page.
Anyway, the killer cops just basically hunt her in some creepy medical settings, unsuccessfully enough to really stretch the bounds of credibility, while Whelan does her best to look sexy in a hospital gown.
Bruce Willis is…not good. His character is MIA for a good chunk of the movie and he’s still remarkably bad. I blame Die Hard, really. It convinced Sean to always bet on Bruce, and he always does, and somehow I’m the one who always loses. Does anyone even remember the last time he was good? Please get back to me ASAP – my Netflix queue depends on it.
Neither critics nor audiences seem to like this one much, but everyone’s game to give it a try because Keanu Reeves is in it. Should you?
Replicas is a sci-fi film, not unlike Altered Carbon in terms of the science, but very much different in terms of the fiction. In the future, a dying person’s “self” (the content of their minds) can be uploaded to a server, and then downloaded into another body. Keanu plays William Foster, a brilliant scientist trying to make that concept workable at a secret facility in Puerto Rico. The upload and the download both go well, but the robotic bodies always seem to reject the process, sometimes even destroying themselves in the process. He’s been working on this for a while, but if his breakthrough doesn’t come soon, they may lose their funding. Even so, William opts to take his family on vacation – after all, he has asked wife Mona (Alice Eve) and their three kids to uproot for him, but he hasn’t been around much. So of course he accidentally kills them all in a terrible traffic accident that very night. In a grief-crazed panic, he calls fellow researcher Ed (Thomas Middleditch), and forces him to quickly upload all 4 of the recently deceased. William knows that the download into robot bodies isn’t viable, so he guilts Ed into using his own area of research to help: human cloning. And as if having a whole family of secret clones isn’t difficult enough, they have to steal very expensive lab equipment to do the job, and then lie about their success to their boss.
This premise is loaded with potential, and the film contains lots of threads that justify anyone choosing this material. So why don’t we like it?
In part, something researchers call “uncanny valley” which basically posits that as robots become more human-like, we go from admiration to revulsion. Anything that we know is unreal, but seems real, makes us feel a bit uneasy. And now William’s living in a whole house of them – very good copies of his family, but copies nonetheless, and not entirely perfect either. As humans, we have a natural revulsion to this. 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had ultra-realistic human animation, and suffered defeat at the box office. Steven Spielberg’s A.I. made some serious money, but the movie creeped out both audiences and critics, some of whom have since revised their originally ambivalent reviews. But still: this stuff makes us uncomfortable, and usually for good reason.
The uncanny valley isn’t Replicas’ only problem though. Ultimately, its own ambition topples it. The first half sometimes feels a bit silly, and William’s choices are consistently problematic. Of course we’d all like just a little more time with our lost loved ones, but William takes it to extremes, and drags his buddy into the mess with him, which is a lot to ask of a coworker who only ever consented to looking after a fish.
The uneasiness generated by a family that now consists mainly of the undead (not zombies, but kinda definitely zombies) would do better in a horror film, but instead director Jeffrey Nachmanoff commits to a family drama but can’t quite make it work. And there was plenty to work with: grief, survivor’s guilt, basic human existential questions of identity of self – but instead Nachmanoff gets bogged down explaining imaginary science as if this was a term paper and not a piece of entertainment. Keanu manages to stay serious even whilst wearing the silliest hat of the future AND waving his hands in the air like he just don’t care, but the script goes from suspicious to limp and I’m pretty sure the director was in the can for the entire back 9. Replicas does not work well as a movie, but it does star the internet’s boyfriend, and for his presence alone, I bet people will continue to watch.
By the early 1980s, Queen was one of the biggest stadium rock bands in the world. Their set at the 1985 Live Aid concert is basically the most significant live performance of all time. Queen meaning Roger Taylor on drums, Brian May on guitar, John Deacon on bass, and Freddie Mercury on piano and vocals. Mercury was a flamboyant showman on the stage, an inimitable presence with an incredible voice. When he died in 1991, the band more or less died with him; his bandmates were his friends, and they needed to mourn him away from the music.
I can’t remember when I was first aware of Queen because I was born into a world already obsessed with them. I remember being in my mom’s van and hearing the telltale bassline of Under Pressure and being mad, SO mad, when it turned out to be “that old song” by Queen, and not Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice, a flash in the pan hip-hop monstrosity that sampled from Queen/David Bowie without crediting them. Imagine being disappointed by Under Pressure. Imagine. I have been atoning for that musical folly ever since.
I have probably never been to a hockey game that didn’t play We Will Rock You at least 5 times. As a kid I probably thought it was specifically written for hockey. But in 1992 the band got an even bigger boost from a different Canadian export, Mike Myers. Wayne’s World was released just a few months after Mercury’s (AIDS-related) death, and the studio begged Myers to go with a Guns N Roses instead, but Myers was insistent. The film propelled Bohemian Rhapsody to #2 on the charts 17 years after its first release. Mercury saw the head banging scene before his death, found it hilarious, and approved the song for the film’s use. It was a nice way for new fans and old fans to appreciate Queen once again. Just two months later, in April 1992, the remaining Queen members put on a benefit, The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, to which 1.2 billion viewers tuned in (they made the Guinness Book of Records!). Performers including Robert Plant, Elton John, Annie Lennox, George Michael, and David Bowie performed alongside the original members, and they raised over £20M for AIDS charities.
This would prove a wise and prophetic move: Queen never tried to replace the irreplaceable Freddie Mercury. When they were ready to perform again, they performed as Queen + ________. John Deacon retired in 1997, but a new Greatest Hits (III) album was released in 1999, Queen + Wyclef Jean on Another One Bites the Dust, George Michael on Somebody to Love, and Elton John on The Show Must Go On (among others). And beginning in 2005, they toured + Paul Rodgers. Fans could enjoy the music they loved without feeling their Mercury had been replaced. May and Taylor could play again, in tribute to their friend of course, but also because this was their music too, their passion.
In 2011, Queen began playing with American Idol loser, Adam Lambert (that year’s winner, Kris Allen, has long since been forgotten – the show has a pretty crummy record: out of 17 seasons, only 2 early winners ever had any lasting success, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood). But Queen knew a winner when it saw one.
This documentary covers a lot of ground. A LOT. But it’s Queen, so let’s gobble it up. And it’s kind of cool that this iconic band, now consisting of two aging rock stars, can see in Lambert a little bit of their old friend. Adam Lambert is himself a flamboyant showman, but he doesn’t invite comparison to Mercury, which is what makes this union work. He is a confident performer in his own right, and May and Taylor seem re-energized in rediscovering their old hits with him, old hits that, like me, Lambert has grown up just knowing. And though he’s also passionate about his solo work, Lambert knows what a huge opportunity this is, how lucky he is to perform to arenas filled with people. But most of all, it’s just cool to see how things have changed, from Freddie Mercury’s deathbed confession of AIDS, to Lambert being able to perform as an openly gay man. Many great bands continue to tour long past their prime, eventually becoming a sort of cover band of themselves. Queen, however, has lasted because it’s been open to change, it has evolved. They never wallpapered over their past. They knew they had a once in a lifetime thing with Freddie, but they also admit they’ve somehow found it again with Lambert.
Disclosure gives us an in-depth look at Hollywood’s depiction of transgender people and the impact those stories have had not just on a transgender lives but on American culture as a whole.
Director Sam Feder puts together a documentary of enormous value, not just because of the breadth and depth of its interview subjects (actors certainly, but also historians, researchers, activists and more) but because this film acts as a valuable resource for cis-gendered people to learn and reflect more on the topic without burdening the trans community. Often we lean on minority communities to teach us how to value and respect them when we should be doing the work ourselves. Feder has generously accounted for our laziness and apathy and has made this easily-digested anthology on trans representation widely available through Netflix. No excuses: just watch it.
Let trans people tell you how it’s felt to grow up watching what few transgendered roles there are be of trans people being trafficked, raped, beaten, and murdered. And yet still they were grateful just to know that somewhere out there, someone else felt like them. Or what it’s like to see cis-gendered people playing trans-gendered characters, perpetuating the notion that some sort of trick is being played, or that gender is a kind of performance. And how important it is just to have any kind of representation at all, since the vast majority of us either don’t know someone who is transgendered, or don’t know that we do – and this includes most young people growing up who are trans themselves. Movie and television characters, however, come into our homes and our consciousness, so we need to get them right.
This documentary could easily shame me for not asking the right questions, not saying the right things, not knowing the right people. Instead, it just allows us to be a part of the conversation, to start thinking in the right direction, to start noticing the gaps, and to meet some people outside of our normal circles. They have every right to be angry and yet Feder and company flood us with hope and optimism. They show us the path forward with respect and dignity, and the very least we can do is take that first step.
Ezekiel Mannings (Gary Oldman) is a very bad man. His job title is literally “crime lord” on his business cards (okay, the business cards are unseen in his wallet but I’m SURE they’re there) and he’s awaiting trial for what I’m also certain is just a small fraction of his many crimes. Or perhaps I should say he is not awaiting trial so much as the trial is waiting to hear from one key witness – Nick Murch (Amit Shah) – whom a federal task force has been protecting so he can deliver his crucial testimony, ie, he saw Ezekiel Mannings murder someone right in the head.
You don’t need to see Mannings’ business card to know he’s a bad guy: he wears an eye patch. Which is a statement. Of Evil. I’ve known a few people without a full set of eyes and they’ve never elected to go with the patch. Glass eyes look surprisingly good if you’ve got a socket that wants filling. The only eye patch I’ve ever seen in real life is the little band-aid coloured ones that kids sometimes wear to help correct a lazy eye, and those are quite adorable and definitely don’t count. I’m talking all-black, special ordered from the pirate store, cover of Evil Monthly magazine, doubling down with a goatee, eye patch.
Nor do you need to see Nick Murch’s business card to know that he’s a nerd. Probably an IT guy. He’s nervous and jittery, and his outfit has definitely not been approved by a woman. I mean, he’s got reason to be nervous and jittery. He IS about to testify against a really bad dude, and the whole case basically hinges on him as a witness. But before he can video conference in (from an unspecified European location), a courier (Olga Kurylenko) arrives at the safe house to deliver a package. Spoiler alert: it’s a bomb. A lot of people die, and someone’s even trying to kill her, but instead of fleeing for her life, she volunteers as Nick’s defacto bodyguard and personal protector. Basically, she and Nick end up fighting for their lives in an underground parking structure, and they’ll have to do it for an hour before the cops arrive (why an hour? who knows. but it’s a great little conceit to put some real-time pressure on the situation). Agent Bryant (William Moseley) and his sniper (Greg Orvis) are particularly persistent.
Is this a good movie? No. We never get a satisfying explanation for why this nameless bike courier would stick around to fight a fight that isn’t hers. Or why she’s so darn good at it; “military” hardly covers it.
The violence is…extensive. As in face caved in. As in literal terminal velocity when a body hits a brick wall so hard the skull cracks open like an egg. As in any foreign object with a somewhat pointed end will soon be lodged in someone’s body cavity. And the victim will always agonizingly pull it out, with a flourish of spurting blood. This became such an odd pattern I started chanting “pull it out!” pull it out!” and they always did, even when it was a 3 foot metal rod through the throat.
And to even out the odds, the bad guys were of course prone to soliloquizing, always pausing for one last smug speech just long enough for the heroes to once again narrowly escape certain death. The brutality was so unending that I didn’t really care which side won as long as everyone just stopped getting up. And also: what’s up with this parking garage where a gun battle to the death can be staged for over an hour and not a single person even ran to their car for a stick of gum? I’m suspicious.
Now there is some merit to a movie with mindless violence, I suppose. A time and a place for it, at any rate. But this wasn’t so much mindless as mind boggling. Turns out the eye patch was the least of my worries.
The Vietnam War. Yeah, we all flinch at the words. As a Canadian, I actually didn’t learn about this in school as we were “non-belligerent” (what a term!) (also, we were busy learning about our contributions in WW2, a war America remembers fondly by screaming at random Europeans “we saved your asses!” but Canadians remember as the war we joined immediately because we “thought Nazis were bad” and America ignored for two whole years because “Nazis were maybe okay” and finally joined when “something bad happened to us, on our soil.” Ahem) and I was born long enough after it that there was already a hit Broadway musical about it. But we can’t help having absorbed quite a bit about it, through pop culture of course, and by sheer proximity to our war-mongering neighbours to the south. I knew that it was a tough war because many Americans came to oppose it, which was probably the right attitude, but it meant that a lot of returning vets didn’t get the respect they deserved or the help they needed – which is an American hallmark, actually, by no means exclusive to the Vietnam war. And I knew that bad shit had happened there: we called it the My Lai Massacre; the Vietnamese call it the Son My Massacre, but either way you slice, it meant that 500 unarmedcivilians – men, women, children, babies – were slaughtered by U.S. soldiers. Women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated, as were children as young as 12. When their cover-up was eventually busted, 26 soldiers were charged with criminal offenses but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr. was convicted. Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, he was given a life sentence but served only three and a half years under house arrest. And for me, the Vietnam war was oddly muddled up with hippies and their peaceful sit-in protests and with civil rights and their peaceful marches. And historically, that’s correct. Some were putting daisies into guns for peace and others were being sent to war, and those things were happening concurrently but not equally. Young black men were being sent to Vietnam in disproportionate numbers while young white men could easily avoid it simply by attending college: Bill Clinton deferred once for college, Joe Biden and Dick Cheney each deferred 5 times. And if staying in school indefinitely wasn’t your bag, your wealth and privilege could work for you in other ways; Donald Trump avoided the draft 4 times with educational deferments but the 5th time Uncle Sam came calling he out and out dodged it – his father called in a favour from a Queens podiatrist who wrote up a false diagnosis of “bone spurs” even though he’d been found physically fit to fight just two years prior and has since said it just “healed up on its own” with no treatment necessary!
Anyway, black civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., were opposed to the war for exactly this reason. Once again, black men were being asked (well, told) to serve their country, and there weren’t any colleges or doctors writing bogus deferrals for them. They were asked to protect the freedoms of people in other countries when they still didn’t have that at home for themselves. They were called up in greater numbers of course, and were a higher proportion of combat casualties in Vietnam, and African American soldiers encountered bigots in their ranks, discrimination in the field, disadvantage when it came to promotions and decorations, and fewer services if and when they returned home. That’s a whole lot to untangle, but have no fear: Spike Lee is reaching back into the baggage of his righteous anger, and he’s not afraid to tackle these iniquities.
In Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, Norman (Chadwick Boseman), a soldier in 1970s Vietnam, tells us “War is about money. Money is about war. Every time I walk out my front door, I see cops patrolling my neighborhood like it’s some kind of police state. I can feel just how much I ain’t worth.” Spike Lee always ends up sounding prescient in his films, but his trick is simply having the temerity to acknowledge that the patterns in our shameful history march on today.
Many years later, four Vietnam vets, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) return to Vietnam to repatriate the body of their fallen comrade and 5th Blood, Norman…and also the pile of gold they stashed along with him. Now surely worth millions of dollars, you might guess that this buried treasure is not going to bring out the best in even the most devoted of brothers in arms. Greed, guilt, nostalgia, regret – these we understand, but Paul’s motivation is particularly murky. Unabashedly sporting a MAGA hat, prone to racist outbursts, he’s convinced himself that he’s doing this for Norman’s honour. But propelled by fury, by a barely-restrained rage for the many ways he and his African American servicemen were vilified for their role in Vietnam, that pile of gold bricks starts to feel like reparations. And this recovery mission starts to feel more like one of revenge – against an enemy that Paul can no longer distinguish.
Delroy Lindo’s performance is the sun around which all the other planets orbit, and like all bright balls of fury, Paul is flirting with supernova. And for his part, Spike Lee has of course never been known for his reticence. As a director, he’s prone to flourishes, allowing Paul’s stream-of-consciousness mutterings to morph into a rousing monologue, staring down the barrel of the camera, staring us down, charging us with his passion and urgency. Lee splices the story of his 5 Bloods with real life footage – Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objections, the Kent State massacre, the Black Lives Matter movement (yes, his film is once AGAIN that prescient, he’s taking the pulse of America right from the jugular, right from its crushed windpipe, his alarm and his agitation a perfect reflection of today simply by being unafraid to hold an honest mirror up to the ugliness of yesterday). His script stresses the cyclical nature of the violence without letting anyone off the hook. Spike Lee’s strength as a filmmaker has always been his point of view, his authorial voice resonating backwards and forwards through time, the immediacy of his plea undiminished.
Da 5 Bloods is as potent as anything Spike Lee has ever done, and possibly the boldest feather in Netflix’s cap. The film is visually arresting, the aspect ratio in constant flux as we travel through time (and our four main actors embody their characters in both timelines, a choice I can only assume is deliberate since Netflix has proven willing to splash out for de-aging, perhaps a nod to these men wanting and needing to believe they are still heroic, still capable, still virile, or a symptom of having glorified the time in their heads, and wanting to recapture that now, before it’s too late). But most of all I admire Da 5 Bloods as an allegory for reparations. Not even an allegory, really, but a template what financial amends might look like and how we can begin to take the next steps forward.
Bart Bromley is an Aspie; he’ll tell you as much in one of his many long-winded, one-sided “conversations.” Bart (Tye Sheridan) lives with his mother. Well, not so much “with” as very much separately, but in her basement. She (Helen Hunt) leaves his meals on the top stair, and he eats them alone, while watching his filmed-in-secret videos, studying and imitating the people he tapes. Wanting to be like them, or at least pretend more convincingly.
Bart is a hotel night clerk, which, not coincidentally, is a great place to hide a bunch of cameras and really get into voyeurism for real. He doesn’t mean to do anything bad, it’s just that observing people is how he learns to live among them. Inevitably (it seems), one night he checks in a woman who is then murdered in her hotel room. Bart is at home, watching it happen. He sprints back to work and arrives just in time for the detective (John Leguizamo) to find him covered in blood, standing over her body. Not a good look, and Bart’s demeanor doesn’t exactly exude innocence. Transferred to another hotel, he checks in Andrea (Ana de Armas), an even more beguiling guest, one who he can actually talk to. So it kinda sucks when it seems she might end up the next victim.
Sheridan and de Armas are actually quite good in this, which is frustrating because the movie itself is…not. Sheridan’s put in the work, and his performance is convincing, even if I’m not thrilled by how his Asperger’s is portrayed. The real problem is that for a thriller – for a murder mystery! – there are no thrills whatsoever. Not even a frisson. And even though there’s a murderer unaccounted for, we don’t really care. There’s no tension, no real worry. The detective is the most chill, low-key cop you’ve ever met, the mother is strangely hands-off, Bart’s boss is surprisingly accommodating, and Andrea is an understanding and receptive romantic interest. Never has being a murder suspect been so easy breezy!
Writer-director Michael Cristofer doesn’t find anything interesting beyond his basic premise, and he fails to make a significant connection with his audience.
Bear with me: I am about to attempt to describe the plot of a cartoon, which is deceptively hard work.
A chaos pearl, birthed from primordial essences, manifests as a giant crystal monster, is sucking up energy to feed its seemingly infinite potential for destruction. The Primeval Lord of Heaven, Tianzun, sends two of his disciples, Taiyi and Shen, to subdue it, but it just keeps siphoning energy, growing bigger and stronger, so the Primeval Lord Tianzun has to separate the pearl into two opposite components: a spirit pearl and a demon orb. The spirit pearl is meant to be reincarnated as a son to Li Jing, while Tianzun curses the demon orb; it will be destroyed in 3 years’ time by a powerful lightning strike. Tianzun gives them to the care of Taiyi and promises him a seat at his heavenly table if he performs well. This makes Shen insanely jealous of course, so he steals the spirit pearl, which means that Li Jing’s pregnant wife Lady Yin is possessed by the demon orb instead. Poor Lady Yin has been pregnant for 3 years and now gives birth to a demon child, Ne Zha.
If you’re following even 25% of what I’m saying, you deserve a silver medal (sorry, I’m reserving the gold for Lady Yin’s marathon pregnancy).
Ne Zha is born with unique powers, as you might expect, and he’s known (and feared) in the village as being incredibly destructive, which makes him a lonely outcast. Taiyi brings him to a universe inside a painting to train him and his progress is astounding, even if his discipline is lacking (note: this is an extremely advanced toddler). Meanwhile, Shen takes the stolen spirit pearl down to the Dragon King. The dragons are angry because they’ve been banished underwater as hell’s gatekeepers. The Dragon King believes that a son of his born of the spirit pearl would mean dragons would finally be worthy and could ascend to heaven, so he gives birth to an egg OUT OF HIS MOUTH and names the kid Ao Bing.
Against the odds, Ne Zha and Ao Bing meet and make friends, but as we know, they’re actually enemies, and they’re going to have to meet in battle on their third birthdays.
Written and directed by Yu Yang, the movie starts out with some shaky story-telling, and as you can tell by my synopsis, there’s quite a bit of vital information to parse rather quickly (we had to pause the movie, compare notes, and restart). Once it gets going, the problems get largely ironed out by some pretty compelling animation. The action scenes are of course commendable but I was also rather dazzled by the universe contained within the painting. Yu Yang takes full advantage of the perks of animation, allowing bold action sequences to communicate character, engaging the audience and fueling the film’s momentum. Kids will delight in the low-brow humour (and by low-brow I of course mean disgusting) and everyone can appreciate the visual spectacle of it all.
In China it was released exclusively in IMAX 3-D and I can imagine this would have been an excellent use of the medium. We watched the English dub on Netflix (we also had the subtitles on, which made for a mind-bending exercise as the two NEVER matched); if you do the same, make sure to check out mid- and post-credit scenes which introduce a new character and set up a sequel. The sequel was actually due to be released January 2020 in China but was postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19.
Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) are lingering in her doorway as they say goodbye after a one night stand. Neither is ready to part so they go to breakfast, and then the park, and then they don’t even notice where they are because they’re too busy confessing mutual crushes and making ooey gooey eyes at each other and generally just agreeing that this is the best thing that’s ever happened to them. Rae and Nanjiani are charming enough that this fills you with joy rather than loathing.
Cut to: four years later. Leilani and Jibran are together, and having one of those fights that couples have, the little thing that turns into a bigger thing, angry words exchanged as they hurry each other out the door, late to a dinner party. The fight continues in the car, and things unravel to the point of breakup. We’re just starting to feel like this is going to be one mother of an awkward dinner party when WHAM, the cyclist that Jibrani just hit rolls up the hood of their car, smashes his skull into their windshield, and then flops back down to the pavement.
It’s funny how killing someone can really put a crimp in your plans. Now they’ll have to put dinner AND their breakup on hold to run from the cops – at least until they can clear their names. You might guess that this does not go well; The Lovebirds is in fact a comedy. The murder aspect is deadly serious but the escalating circumstances in which they find themselves are pretty funny.
“Things going increasingly badly for good people” is one of the most tired tropes in the comedy genre, and The Lovebirds is pretty much exactly what you expect. Happily, Nanjiani and Rae are talented enough and compatible enough that their chemistry saves this thing from mediocrity. It’s too bad the movie really leans on them to carry this thing, but it’s a relief that they can, and they do. The movie’s uneven, there are funny parts, draggy parts, parts that don’t work, and parts that really do. But on the whole I found it fun and enjoyable – light fare from talented actors who deserve to use this film as a vault to better roles and bigger spotlights. And since you may be cooped up with your own partner for the tenth weekend in a row, it’s not a bad idea to pour yourself some sangria and wonder how YOU’D react under similar circumstances.